By Joseph Kraus

Cross posted with permission from the ONE Campaign Blog.

Reason and good sense do not always prevail. On March 8, 2012, UNESCO’s executive board voted 33-18 (with six abstentions) to award a renamed prize sponsored by President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea. The divisive vote marked the first time in UNESCO’s history that a prize was approved without consensus. Proponents voted in favor of the prize despite ongoing concerns over the source of the money provided to UNESCO to fund it. Discrepancies in the prize’s funding led UNESCO’s legal adviser to declare the prize to be “no longer implementable” in a legal opinion issued just days before the final vote. The prize’s original statute identifies a foundation bearing President Obiang’s name as the donor; in February, a representative of the Equatoguinean government provided evidence that the money for the prize instead originated from the state treasury, raising concerns that the government and President Obiang do not make a clear distinction between public and private funds.

President Obiang spent more than three years trying to persuade UNESCO to award the prize, which was suspended in October 2010 over concerns about President Obiang’s human rights record and the source of the prize’s funding. ONE Blog readers may recall that President Obiang repeatedly asked UNESCO to move forward with the prize, but with no success thanks to an unprecedented global outcry by Africans, civil society organizations, health professionals, ONE members and many others.

Feeling the heat, President Obiang offered to remove his name from the prize. UNESCO’s Executive Board agreed to the change, and the approved prize carries the name of Equatorial Guinea rather than that of President Obiang.

UNESCO’s decision to award the renamed prize is disappointing given the serious concerns over the prize’s funding. Perhaps more troubling, however, is President Obiang’s latest attempt to misuse UNESCO to further his own interests. This time, he has appointed his son Teodoro Nguema (“Teodorin”) to a post at UNESCO in a thinly veiled effort to provide him with diplomatic immunity that could shield him from an ongoing investigation into corruption and money laundering in France.

Teodorin, Equatorial Guinea’s Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, has acquired a reputation for spending big and living large. He has accumulated multi-million mansions around the globe, including in France, South Africa, and the United States. He has a penchant for fast cars and designer clothes. He once commissioned plans for a $380 million “super-yacht,” although it was never constructed, possibly due to the intense media scrutiny that inevitably occurred when the plans were leaked to the public. Teodorín reportedly stated to US Embassy officials in Equatorial Guinea: “I’ve been very lucky in business, and I like to live well.”

Authorities in France and the United States have apparently decided that Teodorin’s success in business is not due to luck. Both countries have accused him of money laundering and corruption, and moved to seize assets they claim were purchased with illicit funds. In the past six months, French police have twice raided a Paris residence used by Teodorin and seized luxury items reportedly valued at more than 45 million Euros, and the US Department of Justice has filed motions to seize more than $70 million in luxury assets belonging to Teodorin.

On March 27, it was revealed that French judges have requested an international arrest warrant for Teodorin on charges of suspected money laundering and fraud. The Equatoguinean government has accused the French government of trying “to provoke an internal destabilization” inside Equatorial Guinea.

The fate of the money laundering and corruption case against Teodorin in France may very well rest in the hands of the French Foreign Ministry, which has the authority to deny Teodorin the diplomatic visa necessary to enjoy diplomatic immunity in France. If the visa is issued, it could derail the French investigation against Teodorin. To pressure the Foreign Ministry to refuse Teodorin the diplomatic visa, Sherpa, a Paris-based NGO, has launched an online petition.

The recent misuses of UNESCO by the Obiangs highlight the important need for strong international transparency rules. Rules like Cardin-Lugar, or similar rules that have been proposed in the EU, can help shed light on opaque governments and the amounts of money they receive from the oil, gas, and mining industries. By giving ordinary people the information necessary to hold their governments accountable, these rules can help prevent government officials from using public money to finance extravagant lifestyles and self-aggrandizing prizes.